The Big Corona Escape

The Big Corona Escape

We’re home! Two months earlier, unplanned, after a precarious 5-day journey and action plan like from a Bond movie. How did it all happen? Why didn’t we stay there? Read our diary from the past week.

15th March 2020

We wake up in a pine forest in the morning. Yesterday we cycled together with our friend Chris from Switzerland (you probably already know him from this blog), but later we separated. He opted for campground due to his bowel trouble and we ended up in this little forest, calm and for free. Ever since day before our minds are preoccupied by corona. You see, up until this weekend the situation in South America was quite relaxed. But suddenly there are news of possible border closure in Argentina and even ongoing talks about possible total lockdown there. We are on Carretera Austral, beautiful road down in Chilean Patagonia, which was one of the few places that were on the list ever since the beginning of the trip. Two weeks to the end of the road and planned border crossing to Argentina. It’s midday already and we still haven’t left our campsite, despite everything being packed up and ready for some time now. We’re about 15 kms from the closest border crossing though. If we should had a chance to cross, it is now. But is that what we want? While on this side of the Andes in Chile there’s a decent amount of villages and town, on the other side in Argentina there’s only pampa. Dry, super windy and closest town about 160km away. And we only have food for roughly 2 days.

Chris as well is still staying at the campground beating his brains about this. We pedal 15km back to meet up, hoping that more heads, more wisdom. Unfortunately, the opposite proves to be the case. One can slice up the nervousness hanging in the air. Because there is no right or wrong choice here. Chris has a family in Argentina and so, when the border closure is officially announced, he packs up extremely fast and sets out towards the borders. He makes it just minutes before they close for the day. And we’re starting to settle with the fact, that we might not get out of Chile that fast.

16th March 2020

At least one dilemma has been dealt with – by the government of Argentina which erased the option of crossing over there from our list. Chris proves himself to be the most indecisive from our group. Sitting at the border whole morning brooding over if to turn back to Chile. Security wise it’s clearly better decision, since he doesn’t carry enough food and to his family it’s few thousand kilometers back north. On the other hand Chile is the most expensive country in South America, we don’t have any personal contacts here and we’re in the part of Patagonia separated from the rest of the country by few ferries, which could prove to be problematic later on in regards to supplies.

Marcelo with doggies

We returned to Coyhaique to our host Marcelo and soon enough Chris turned up as well. We could only imagine the confusion on the border officers faces as he was passing back to Chile. Sitting all together again, wondering what to do, again… Finding a place to rent for few months? Volunteering? Chris has an idea of buying a car, drive north to a house in the forest of his friends and outlast this whole mess there together. He heard it’s supposed to be easy in Chile. A little bit of googling later it turns out it’s not so easy. So this plan’s off the table.

We managed to find couchsurfing place for Chris with a waiter from French bistro, as we already need to share Marcelo’s place with another couchsurfer from Argentina. Calm and rational view on current situation frequently alternates with panic episodes. Even if we wait it out in Chile, we won’t be able to continue through Patagonia this season anymore, the winter is coming. While contemplating different options where to go, we are bombarded by messages from whatsapp group for cyclists riding similar route as us. The once lucrative source of income for locals – Gringos – quickly turned to persona non grata (unwanted person). Messages about “witch hunts” when people are kicked out of accommodation, denied entry to shops or others cover their faces (like the señor who gave Chris a ride and then almost jumped out of the car when Chris mentioned he’s from Switzerland). It doesn’t matter we haven’t been to European soil for almost 3 years now. We were getting a little bit worried about the situation, if there’ll be need for rationing, people from abroad stuck here would be last ones on officials minds.

Internet reports that minister of foreign affairs is supposed to prepare a plan to repatriate Slovak citizens. Embassy in Buenos Aires (which also covers Chile and few other countries) doesn’t have any info about this and they just put us on some list. All the emails we receive from them say basically the same thing – you take care of yourself because the embassy won’t help you.

We don’t see the option of leaving by plane very optimistic anymore. Regardless we still set out on a mission after the dog kennels and to our big surprise they have some in Coyhaique. Just in case… We never wanted things to end up this way. Kennels and stuff. Phoebe will be scared, that’s very clear to us. But last thing we want is to fight here not only for us, but for them as well. What’s more, it’s quite likely that any official government repatriation flight couldn’t care less about some Slovak dogs.

On the other side of paper-thin wall our neighbors don’t care about coronavirus but number of orgasms tonight. A bit later they start singing. We’re not sure what’s worse. I weep. Only about second time today. We finally fall asleep around 2am.

17th March 2020

Chris comes by in the morning and tells us that tomorrow he’s flying to Santiago a then via Paris to Zurich. This is exactly the situation when everyone plays for themselves, when the most basic instinct of self preservation resurface (same goes for hoarding toilet paper). Two days ago we were reassuring each other that if we stay in Chile, we do so all together. That’s gone. And I get it. We’re two, or four, and he’s afraid he might have to face it all alone.

I can’t make it until the farewells, I flee upstairs to cry my eyes out. Normal panic attack, the most basic instinct is resurfacing. Tom is trying to calm me down, but at the moment it’s useless. The whatsapp group is not helping either, people writing how they’re going home and how some locals take their anger out at them. It’s not only pneumonia this virus is causing, but madness too.

We’re calling Tom’s parents. It takes a little while before they understand that this is not just another “call home”, but this time we’re regularly in deep shit and we need help. And that time is the last thing we have right now. Argentina closed its borders and restrained movement two days ago so it’s only matter of time before Chile joins and we won’t be able to move around freely anymore. And if we get stuck here and something was to happen to the family back home, it’d be impossible to get there quickly.

Whole day is dedicated to planning and organising. The position of Chief of Crisis Management Team consisting of family members and friends is given to Tom’s sister Sabina. We get a contact for the boss of one travel agency in Slovakia from our friend and he embarks on an adventure to find flights to Europe for us. This whole fun is complicated by the fact that many airports are already closed and many countries restricts entry for foreigners.

We’re only about 50 kms from the closest airport Balmaceda. While buying direct flights to Santiago, we still don’t know if we’ll be able to continue from there, but even if not, at least we’ll be closer to the international airport in case we get a chance to get out of Chile. But there’s a problem. Dogs need to be added to the flight at least 48 hours before the flight and we’d like to fly tomorrow, to have more time. The airline is absolutely adamant and not even for a second accepts the exceptionality of current situation. The guy at the call center must be getting crazy as we keep asking more and more questions trying to find a solution, while he only keeps repeating his trained phrases. At the end he suggests to give a call to their cargo section, who may be able to transport the dogs.

So we call cargo. Ibrahim picks up the phone. Ibrahim understands what sort of situation we found ourselves in. Ibrahim is a person who is trying to find a solution and is unbelievably human. He sends us an email with all the requirements for kennels and gives us his personal!!! phone number where we can reach him. On top of that we find out the doggies will fly in the same plane as us and he can even add them the same morning the plane leaves. No 48 hours before

Masked cyclists

Chris stops by to say goodbye. Jessica, cyclist from US, who we first met in Mexico is with us too. Few days ago we sent her a new tent from Coyhaique further down south. Back then she couldn’t have known she won’t get a chance to use it and will have to come back north in a hurry by bus.

We set out to hunt some cardboard boxes to pack the bikes. Plus a visit to the vet where they provide us health certificates for the dogs. Tomorrow we’ll take them to SAG – Chilean government agricultural office, where we get the paperwork to cross the borders for doggies. Marcelo is cooking dinner for us, because he can see there’s a long night ahead of us.

We manage to pack majority of our stuff by 2am. We turn the computers on and try to find some flights. Unsuccessfully. The tickets disappear in front of our eyes, it doesn’t accept our cards… We go to bed at 6am, to get at least an hour of sleep before we have to wake up again.

18th March 2020

We’re going to SAG. There we’re told they can’t give us the certificate, because in Coyhaique they only provide certificates for terrestrial border crossings. But they confirm that it’s possible to get it directly at the Santiago airport.

We say goodbye to Marcelo who goes to work. The pre-arranged pick-up truck (Marcelo’s work) arrives just before noon. The guy helps us to load everything up and takes us to the airport. He is really kind and waits patiently while we deal with all the paperwork for doggies at cargo. Phoebe cries. We do cry inside too, little girl. I hope you’ll be fine.

Balmaceda airport – cargo

We can see how they load them in the plane from our seats inside. We weren’t this scared for a long time. Not even when we lived in the jungle with snakes and scorpions or while the church tower shook with us during the earthquake in Colombia.

The weather is beautiful and we can see the Andes and all the lakes we cycled by only few days or weeks ago. We see Aconcagua, the highest mountain of Americas. Ushuaia was so close and so far at the same time. The dream to see Patagonia in autumn. Majestic Fitz Roy. All this will remain in the box with label “Dreams”. Not clear for how long. But now we have to get home, while it’s still possible.

At the Santiago airport the life goes on normally. We pick up the bikes and rest of our luggage and Tom goes to pick up the doggies. He takes a taxi as the cargo terminal is some 2 kms away from the passenger one. In the meantime I just sit and watch the departures board. Every other flight cancelled. Miami, Bogota, Dallas… We have our flight booked to Frankfurt, via Sao Paulo, for 20th March and so far it’s confirmed.

The kiddos made it

Four legged are here! Returned from the walk outside content and no different than before. We were so afraid Phoebe might be affected. Now we have to get their papers for Europe done, but the office isn’t open until tomorrow morning. We make ourselves comfortable at the airport and with our mats packed in the boxes with bicycles we sleep on the elevated parts of portable space dividers. It’s quiet and other than occasional sound of alcohol gel dispenser being pushed on the wall nearby, it’s only the hard surface we sleep on that wakes us up from time to time.

19th March 2020

Tom goes to LATAM check-in to pay for the doggies. There they tell him our reservation has been cancelled. Why? They didn’t know. All freaked out we quickly call “our agent” from the travel agency in Slovakia, who booked the flights. Pavol informs us that he had to cancel the flights, because at the Sao Paulo airport they wouldn’t be able to transfer dogs between the planes. So now he has to book the same flights as two different reservations. We also need to find out if we can enter Brazil without problems, pick up the doggies and check them in for the second flight again. I can’t imagine how busy he must be right now, he has several other clients out in the world as well and needs to get them home too. In the meantime we get the certificates for European Union and hope we make it to Germany.

It’s afternoon, we managed to eat some bread in the morning and drink bit of water. Nothing else since. Finally we receive the message we hoped for. The flights are booked and we can go to pay for the dogs. And Brazil won’t be a problem either. But we must accept the risk of getting stuck there if Germany decides to close its airports in the meantime or the airline cancels the flight. The flight tickets cost us more than half a year of life in Latin America. But at the moment there’s no other option.

Doggie’s ride in Holiday Inn

Over the last two nights we managed to get only about 5 hours of sleep. We’re totally drained and decide to spend the last night at the airport hotel. With our nerves already stretched very thin we don’t dare to leave the airport in case Chile comes up with new restrictions or something happens to the tickets again. Doggos are the best and behave exemplarily and by now the kennel transformed to a great place to sleep.

20th March 2020

Sao Paulo

Alarm rings at 4am. The plane takes off after 9am, but we want to have time and do everything without unnecessary stress. We start the day with disgusting hotel coffee in the room and continue with potato crisps on the airport. The last merkén potato crisps (merkén is Chilean smoked chilli spice). Phoebe and Lolo go for their walk and we go to check-in. Business class check-in, there were no other flights left. Phoebe starts crying a little bit once we separate them into their own kennels. At the counter next to us a young couple is trying to sort out their situation. Two very young puppies, but only one kennel. Stewards don’t want to allow that. Some airlines allow two dogs in kennel if they’re from one household. LATAM obviously not. After a short drama at the counter, the pups are rolled away together. I’m jealous. It would be much much better experience for Phoebe if she could lie down next to her emotional support animal – meaning Lolo.

Two dirtbags getting on to the business class. Variety of buttons and a divider between our seats. But we’re not the only ones clearly not fitting in. Current situation brought to business many people you’d normally not find here. The young couple with puppies is here, some backpackers. Older man across the aisle coughs without bothering to cover his mouth.

It takes roughly 4 hours to Sao Paulo. Ideal for one movie. Jojo Rabbit. Awesome tragicomic piece from the era of WWII, where Hitler is the best imaginary friend and one little Hitlerjugend fan discovers his mom has been hiding young Jewish girl in the attic. The movie ends with quote from R.M.Rilke, I hit the pause button to take a picture.

"Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final."

As if the author knew what would be happening these days.

In Sao Paulo we hurry to the belt where doggies should come to. The puppies are already here and are loudly greeting their humans. Long minutes pass by and ours are nowhere to be seen. I’m starting to be really worried if the steward didn’t mean the two puppies when we asked him to confirm two dogs on board. Thankfully a minute later the belt starts moving again, small gate opens up and Phoebe with Lolo roll out towards us. They are super happy, but we have to undo the 6 security cables on each door before we can finally greet them.

There’s 5 hours transfer time, so we take them out and after the terrible hotel coffee we treat ourselves to a bit better one from Starbucks. Of course we let all the people included in the action plan “Coming home” know about progress and 3 hours before next flight go to the next check-in. We don’t hope for much but we have to ask regardless: “Do you think the doggies could travel in one kennel together?”. It’s 10+ hours flight. The nice steward from Lufthansa calls his boss and to our huge surprise he’s like: “Officially it’s not in our conditions, but if you know they won’t hurt each other, I don’t see a problem. They’re your dogs, you know them best.”

They can go together!!

I almost fainted. I didn’t expect to see this much humanity and common sense around here in these troubled days. We both shine like suns and thank everybody over and over again. Half an hour later when we meet the young steward again to hand them over, Phoebe calmly looks at us and doesn’t make a sound. And we’re sure they’ll be just like this when we pick them up in Frankfurt.

Before boarding we manage to enjoy the VIP lounge for a bit. Everyone going in gets disinfection gel on their hands. As a reminder of the situation we’re currently experiencing. Other than that, Sao Paulo airport looks like any other airport any other normal day.

Once on board in Lufthansa’s business, the nice steward confirms doggies are already on board (apparently when the airport staff boards animals, they push the button to let the captain up in the cockpit know). Before the take off we strengthen ourselves with a caipirinha. Too bad we can’t enjoy this private party better. What’s more Lufthansa prepared vegan menu (apart from the butter) that fulfilled all our expectations. Absolutely tasteless :). But they earned some points for trying. White wine from German vineyards makes the experience whole level better.

You can make the seat into a bed by pressing a button. It just flattens to 180° and I sleep so well I can’t be bothered to wake up for breakfast.

21st March 2020

At the immigration counter in Frankfurt we have to explain our crisis plan, which took few days to put all together by us, Sabina and our friends. This is not Europe we remembered. With freedom of movement and no questions asked. This is new Europe all of us will have to get used to. Right there in front of the officer we have to book the car online so he believes us and lets us through. Doggies are rolling through the airport in two huge kennels and absolutely nobody is interested in them. Same goes for us. No health checks, no temperature measuring. We imagined it completely differently from the other side of the world. Especially when we were frantically searching for flights and it seemed like they may close the airports any minute. All that reminds us of the whole corona crisis are few people with masks and bouncing disinfection gels on their backpacks.

Keče and Janko

With a giant pretzel in hand we go to load everything into the car. Despite renting a huge estate car I end up with one of the kennels on the front seat with me. We’re heading 160km southeast to where my classmate from the high school Keče lives. We haven’t seen each other face to face since we stopped by here when moving to London 6 years ago. She has a place for us, as proper immigrants, in their garden house so we don’t endanger each other. We’re leaving bicycles, trailer and all other big things here and tomorrow morning heading towards Nuremberg to return the car. We’re feeling like kings in this little garden house. Keče serves homemade cherry liqueur as a welcome, a lot of food, hot coffee and tea, warm covers, stove, even warm water for washing in bottles, because water in the garden is turned off during winter months.

Our hideout for the night

22nd March 2020 

Last goodbye to our trusted steeds which we won’t see for a while and off we go towards the highway leading to Nuremberg. Our own Spotify playlist “From Canada to Argentina” is on and we still can’t comprehend what really happened in the last few days. Volvo V90 shows its advantages on the empty German highway without speed limit and thanks to that we’ve got enough time to find a place where to drop off the car and keys at the train station. Lady in the ticket booth asks us where we go and how do we have it all arranged. She has her instructions, everybody suspects everybody in this new world.

Empty German train

We’re alone in the train. I guess thanks to the fact it’s Sunday. EU funded solar panels are covering roofs of the houses along the tracks. There’s nobody to check the tickets either. We change trains in Schwandorf. Right after we get on, a very proactive ticket controller starts shouting at us how dare we break the quarantine in Bavaria. All in German. She has no idea the whole crisis plan has been consulted with all the involved embassies and ministry of internal affairs of both Czech Republic and Slovakia. Luckily the train conductor is more understanding and gets it. We’re all alone in this train too. Furth im Wald, the end station, is 4,5km from the border. No taxis in front of the station. Keče saves us again and calls one for us with her professional German. We have to try really hard to remember what we learned on the high school to exchange at least few words with the taxi driver.

We have a declaration of honour prepared for Czech police that we only intend to transit through the country. They’re nice and after a little while we’re allowed to pass onto the Czech soil. Dušan and Juro, Tom’s classmates from high school, are waiting for us. With two cars. Greeting has to be completely non-contact again. We haven’t seen each other in years again and these corona times are ruining the true joy of these encounters completely. Humans are tactile beings and we feel like we are handless. We take a distance selfie and once in the car we find the surprise from Dušan in form of his first attempt on vegan muffins waiting for us. We drive close after another and in Prague we wave and blink our goodbyes. Who knows when we’ll be able to see each other again for real…

At German – Czech border

On the way to Ostrava, where we drop this car off and Sabina with Martin are waiting for us, we run into a decent snowstorm. You can’t see a step ahead. It’s already dark when we return the car to Hertz at the airport. Two cars again, to keep all of our helpers safe, from us as well as quarantine. This time we have the honour to ride Sabina’s old Meluzina (meaning severe snow storm in Slovak) and with her we make it to the Slovak border.

Sabina – head of crisis management team and Martin

Meluzina in a snow storm

It’s snowing heavily, a decent meluzina ;). When we get out of the four-wheeled Meluzina at the gas station at the border, our legs almost end up above our heads. Quite icy! We take everything and walking head out towards the border control. There’s another surprise waiting for us. The police check our passports a wish us a safe journey home. And not to forget to call our GP to let them know about our home quarantine.

“Okay, have a nice evening and stay safe on your way!”

“That’s all? You don’t need to take our details? Or register the address of where we’ll be in quarantine?”

“No, just call your GP.”

This one is a decent shock. These gentlemen are absolutely fine with the fact that few minutes later they won’t have any idea who we were or where we went. It makes us think how many people, who returned from abroad, just smirked and couldn’t care less about “some stupid quarantine”.

Few meters down the road we can already see Tom’s parents. And how else than with two cars again. They haven’t seen each other for 3 years and it’s obvious how his mother would really really love to come closer, but it’s not possible. What the world is experiencing right now is incomprehensible. We must only respect it and believe that it’ll get better. That once more we’ll be able to fulfill our dreams, hug family, go to cinema or theatre.

This isn’t and can’t be the end of our journey. It remained unfinished, hanging somewhere in the air between South America and Europe and not only because of the missing 1500km, but mainly because that’s how it feels in our hearts. We haven’t been prepared for this.

High Tatras

We want to thank from the bottom of our hearts to all the good people who helped us get back home, gifted us their time, energy, positive thoughts and encouraging words. Hug you soon, friends!

Follow Luba Lapsanska:

Older woman, 33 years old, experienced. She stopped being a doctor and started being a traveller. She likes animals more than people because they don't lie. She also likes looking at the the world through the viewfinder of her camera.

5 Responses

  1. Michal Hamžík

    Wow, what a thriller! I am happy that you made it home! Take care you two (four).

  2. Mark Watson

    Thanks for the write up of your egress! We shared so much of this experience too – crazy times. I hope we can all return as soon as possible… For now enjoy home. It was nice to meet you finally in La Paz that day. Take care xx

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